Dinner Church

When people ask what my plans are for my ministry, I tell them that my dream is to start a dinner church. There’s usually a short pause before they ask, “Dinner church? What’s that?” The answer is pretty straightforward: dinner church is when a community gathers in an intentional worship space that incorporates dinner. It’s dinner, and it’s church.

My first encounter with dinner church was St. Lydia’s, a Lutheran dinner church Brooklyn. I took a weekend trip to New York with a friend of mine to visit. We helped cook dinner, set up, and participated in a beautiful worship service—singing, prayer, food, reading, a sermon, all bookended by sharing the bread and grape juice of the communion ritual. It was the first time I had immediately felt like I belonged in a room full of strangers, and it filled my love of sacred space and my love of sharing food with others at the same time. I was hooked. A friend who had recently graduated from Harvard Divinity School moved to Grafton, MA to plant Simple Church, a Methodist dinner church, and invited me to be the ministerial intern. I’ve spent Thursdays this year baking bread to sell at the farmer’s market, cooking soup, and helping facilitate our weekly dinner church services.

All the dinner churches I’ve come across, whether standalone or part of a larger insitituion, have one thing in common: they are all Christian and incorporate the celebration of communion into the service. As I went to more and more dinner church services, as I continued to move forward in the UU ordination process, I started to wonder what a non-Christian dinner church would be like. Communion has been part of every dinner church service I’ve been to—but does it have to be? Is there a way to craft a dinner church service that is still sacred and full ofmeaning, but that doesn’t include communion?

Through my MDiv thesis, I’ve been able to explore these questions in depth. My thesis ends with a model for a dinner church that is not built around communion, but rather centered in other rituals of community building. I’ve drawn various aspects from dinner church services, UU worship, and other sacred spaces to create a dinner church that feels deeply spiritual and full of meaning. Everyone is invited to come early to help cook and set up, and we clean up together as part of the service. There is singing, sharing, readings, and discussion. I’ve been lucky enough to get to pilot my dinner church at First Parish UU in Arlington, where I am a member—we’re calling it “sacred supper.” I’ve gotten to take my thoughts about dinner church out of my head and off the page to facilitate it with and for others—and this has only made me more sure that facilitating dinner church will be part of my ministry career.

Dinner church is a deeply communal form of worship, one that allows people to interact with one another in a fairly casual and yet deeply sacred setting. Beyond starting my own dinner church, my dream is to see dinner churches spread far and wide, including within our movement. And maybe brunch church, too.

[Originally published on the Growing Unitarian Universalist blog]

ordination

In my previous post, I talked about figuring out my personal ministry, and how I do not feel called to be ordained. While the former is still true, the latter certainly isn't. 

Coming into Div School, words like "call" and "worship" made me uncomfortable. But as I explored my own theology and spirituality, I became more and more comfortable with them. I never thought I'd say it, but  I feel the call to ministry loud and clear from my community, my own life experiences, and yes, even the divine. It is new and exciting and sometimes terrifying - I cried from the pulpit during my preaching class in the spring as I explained my recent discovery that I am a theist. 

It's all a journey. Join me!

senior thesis

In some ways, it feels like I'm back where it all began. Though I'm nowhere near where I thought I would be when I was working on my senior thesis at Stanford, I'm now working on my senior thesis again, this time as a 3rd year MDiv at Harvard Divinity School. I'm submitting an IRB proposal so that I can do interviews, putting important deadlines on my calendar, planning a research and writing schedule, and already counting ahead to know how many months I have left to get it done.

In many ways, my project is so totally different. In others, it's very similar. And just as before, I'm hoping that the research and writing process is fun, and that even when I'm stressed out about it, I'm excited about the work I am doing, if not in the moment, then in the longterm. We shall see.

Harvard Divinity School

It's been a while since I updated this blog, and a lot has happened! Despite being dead set on a PhD program, I have ended up pursuing a master's degree at Harvard Divinity School. I came in as an Masters of Theological Studies student, HDS's version of an MA. However, just a few short months into the program, I realized that academia is not the career path I'm looking for right now, and I ended up switching to the Masters of Divinity (MDiv) degree instead. The MDiv is a practically-focused degree, with a Field Education component and a required Introduction to Ministry Course. This semester, I'm really enjoying exploring the concept of ministry, broadly defined, and trying to figure out what my personal ministry is - I do not feel called to become ordained! I'm also exploring new things in my courses, including theology, which I have not read much of in the past. I'm really loving HDS and all the new things I am learning and doing. Who knows where this will lead?

AAR conference and applying to PhD programs

I attended the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting in Chicago in November. Even though I arrived with a sinus infection and had to miss out on the Islamic Studies workshop I had signed up for, the conference was a great experience. I attended two sessions relevant to my topic, one on Negotiating Muslim Identities and Representations and one on Everyday Islam and Ethnographic Methods. Both were very interesting and gave me a lot of insight into the field as it currently stands. I also attended a session out of personal interest - Monsters Among Us, about religion in popular narratives of zombies, ghosts, and vampires.

While the conference felt a bit lonely at times, since I wasn't reconnecting with fellow students or colleagues, I'm looking forward to attending other annual meetings in the future. The Exhibit Hall full of new books by publishers alone was enough to excite my nerdy heart!


I've taken this year off in order to recharge my brain and apply to PhD programs. I'm very excited to go back to school and jump into my research again, but I also know that my brain has been in school since I was 4 years old and it needed a little break. Now I've turned in the applications to 3 of the 5 programs I'm applying to, and soon it will just be a matter of waiting. The application process has been a little stressful--how do I portray myself in a way that is attractive to schools? How do I play up my strengths and convince them that my lack of an MA degree is okay and even an asset? How do I talk about quoting professors in my thesis without seeming like I'm pandering? I've always had a hard time writing about myself and I've been struggling a lot with my personal statements. Luckily my mother, a college professor who used to be a freelance editor, has been helpful in reading my drafts, and a lot of other people have been very nice about reading and providing their advice. Once one was done, the rest could be modified to be like it, so I've been slowly finishing up. The last two are due on January 1st, and I'm hoping to get them done before so that I can go into 2013 with no commitments!

My thesis is complete!

After a quarter in Oxford, a summer in New York, a lot of interviewing, transcribing, researching, reading, and writing ... my thesis is finally bound, turned in, presented, and graded! It's been an intense process that's spanned a number of years and a lot of emotional ups and downs. A lot of people have helped carry me through this, and I will forever be grateful.

My undergraduate career is practically over, and I'm excited to take a year and step away from academics for a bit, and then jump back into it pretty soon. Maybe I'll chronicle my grad school application process here...

I'm also now officially a member of the American Academy of Religion, and will be going to the conference in November, which I'm very excited about.

Here's to a new chapter of life!

A Day in the Life of a Hijabi

The Stanford Muslim Students Awareness Network (MSAN) hosted "A Day in the Life of a Hijabi" today, which they describe as follows: "This day of activism challenges Stanford females to wear a scarf around their head in solidarity with the right of women to choose, as an opportunity to explore a culture that many times is portrayed as “foreign,” and to make a stance against the rising number of discrimination and employment cases in which women who wear the hijab are prevented from applying for certain jobs within the United States. The day also incorporates the support of Stanford males by providing them with a free pink t-shirt (with the slogan “It’s about what’s in your head, not on it”) and asking them to wear said shirt on the awareness day in increased solidarity. Pick up a free headscarf (women) and t-shirt (men) in White Plaza on Thursday, December 1 from 11:30-1:30 in White Plaza. Then wear them all day around campus on December 2 in solidarity with women who choose to wear hijab every day." There is dinner and discussion afterwards. I decided to participate -  I wanted to last year but was abroad and just totally forgot. I went by yesterday and picked up a t-shirt and scarf. I wore the scarf very simply, just draped over my head and tied under my chin ("Think Jackie O," the girl who gave me the scarf said."

Photo on 2011-12-02 at 13.02 #3
Photo on 2011-12-02 at 13.02 #3

I spent most of today holed up in my room doing work, because that's what my Fridays are like, but I was out on campus a little, running around doing errands.

The main thing I noticed was how self-conscious wearing the hijab made me. I was convinced that people were staring, which some of them probably were, but most of them probably just didn't really care or notice - not in a bad way, just that they had no reason to care that I was wearing a scarf on my head. But I think the fact that it's something different to me, and something that not a lot of other people are wearing, made me feel like I was being singled out for staring.

It was a cool experience. I'm sorry to be missing the dinner but maybe I can do this again sometime!

Alcohol and networking

Another interesting thread I'm finding throughout my interviews is about alcohol. Many observant Muslims do not drink alcohol, including the women I have interviewed. However, beyond not drinking alcohol themselves, many do not feel comfortable in situations where alcohol is present, avoiding sitting at tables where people are drinking, or attending events held in bars. This is a personal, religious choice, but it makes it difficult for the women to network or socialize with coworkers or fellow students when events include alcohol, and they often miss out on events. Some people may think that it is enough to provide non-alcoholic drinks for them to enjoy, but many still do not feel comfortable in these settings. It's something to think about - holding events in varied locations to make sure everyone feel comfortable. This might get its own section in my thesis, because I think it's an interesting example of these women trying to balance being Muslim and being American.

Back to work!

I'm back on campus for Honors College, two and a half weeks for getting a head start on writing the honors thesis. There are 90 of us from different departments. Religious Studies, Philosophy, and Ethics in Society are combined into one group. Over this time, I have to turn in a 5 page prospectus of the thesis, and I'm also going to be doing a lot of other work, including some reading, writing brainstorming, and more interviews. I did another interview today, and it was fascinating. Going back to the common thread about marriage, I asked her if she would have considered marrying a non-Muslim man (she is already married). Maybe, she said, but there was too much family pressure to marry a Muslim man...so instead, the man she married converted to Islam. Her father had done the same thing.

This fascinates me because it's completely the opposite of the stereotype that women convert to marry Muslim men, but you would think we would see this more often, since technically Muslim men can marry Muslim, Jewish, or Christian women, while Muslim women are supposed to marry Muslim men.

I'm excited to look into this more, and to start really getting to work on my thesis in the next couple weeks.

Radio appearance

I was on the radio today! A friends mom is the host of the Doctor Radio show "Nurse Practitioner," which runs once a month on the station, which is at the NYU Medical Center. This month, her show was on cultural considerations in providing good health care, and after hearing about my summer work, she invited me to be a guest! The show runs for two hours, and I was on for the second half, along with the social worker she works with, and a phone-in guest from LA who is also a nurse. During the second hour, we talked primarily about Muslim families, but used that to branch out to talking about all sorts of people from various backgrounds.

I'm honored that she asked me to be a guest. I don't feel like I'm an expert about Muslim women, and I certainly know very little about healthcare and patient care. But I managed to draw conclusions from my research and talk about things like not stereotyping, understanding that women may not be comfortable with male doctors or nurses, and keeping in mind things like Ramadan and dietary restrictions. And I felt so official, with big headphones on and a giant mic in front of me, complete with a "cough" button to push to mute the mic.

It was a lot of fun, and I'm thankful to Nurse Chibbaro for having me on!

Arab American Association of New York

Yesterday, I went out to the Arab American Association of New York, which is in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn. It was fairly empty because it was the second day of Ramadan, a time when schedules get flipped around and many people become almost nocturnal. I still got a chance to look around and talk to some people. I did three mini-interviews with women there, really just prompting them to tell me their take on what its like to be a Muslim woman living in the United States.

One woman, 31, was born in the US but had lived most of her childhood in Palestine, then moved back at age 21, married and with a child, to Louisiana, and then to NYC.

One was 20 and had grown up in Brooklyn her whole life. She now only wears her headcovering when she comes home to her old neighborhood.

One was 43, a little older than my demographic, so I'm not sure I'll be using her. She just moved to the US 2 years ago, though, and had only lived and worked within the Arab/Muslim community since being here, so she had a different take on things as well.

I had one other short interview with a white, non-Muslim man. At first glance, this interview makes no sense in the scheme of things, but it actually fits well. He is in charge of the youth programs at the center, teaching SAT prep courses but also helping the youth get involved in activism. It was great to get his perspective on working with the youth and what that means.

It was a really productive day, and I got to talk to women who were pretty different from the ones I've been speaking to in Manhattan. I really appreciated the opportunity!

Marriage

The most interesting common thread through my 5 interviews thus far: each woman has said, basically unequivocally, that she wouldn't consider marrying a non-Muslim man. I expected it to some level - that's why the question exists on my list. But I was unprepared for the unanimity of it. It is the one question, besides "Do you consider yourself Muslim?" that is answered abruptly and mostly without explanation or clarification. I think this is partly because of the idea (I have to research and find out to what extent it is a rule/law - where it shows up, who said it, etc) in Islam that Muslim women can only marry Muslim men, while Muslim men can only marry people of the book. I suspect in the historical context this was because the men tended to have more say in the family, so having a Muslim father was pretty much a guarantee that the children would be Muslim. Though it would be interesting to see a Muslim man and Jewish woman, since Judaism is passed matrilineally.

I'm curious to see what my other interviewees have to say, but this is definitely going to be a section of thesis, probably along with some other "Family" stuff.

Update

It's been a while since I've posted, and that's because it's been a while since I've done much work. I took a mini week-long vacation when a friend came to town. So far, I've done 5 interviews, and I have 2 more set up. I'm trying to find some more, as I'd like to get up to 10, but as it is I'm doing pretty well!

I've finished two transcriptions completely, and have started two more. It's interesting to go back and listen after the fact, see what little things I missed, somethings I wish I could follow up on, and start to see the trends among the interviews. As I've finished each one, I've sent follow up emails to the women, asking for clarification, etc. And I really am starting to see interesting trends that I want to follow up on in general for the thesis.

My next interviews aren't for a week, so as I work on the transcriptions, I'm also going to be checking out some of the books I brought with me, both those relevant to the topic and ones about the research and writing process in general. It's a bummer not to have interviews set up, but this is all work that needs to be done, so I'm going to do it!

More interviews and a Ramadan class

I had two interviews on Friday. Both happened to be with women who had converted to Islam, and it was really great to hear their opinions and perspectives. One of the women didn't cover her head, so that was a new perspective as well. I'm really hoping to get a wide range of women, and so far I'm doing well: a woman who was born Muslim but chose to cover (her mother didn't until she started to cover), a woman who converted who covers, and a woman who converted who doesn't cover. I have another interview tomorrow, and one scheduled for the week after, putting me at 5. That's halfway to my minimum goal! So that's good. I have another potential or two, and I'm hoping that I'll get in touch with some more as well.

Yesterday evening I went to the Women's Circle at the MECCA Center, an Islamic Center that mostly reaches out to converts and those interested in learning about Islam. There were a lot of women there. The topic was preparing for Ramadan, both spiritually and physically, in terms of how to best fast, what to eat, and how to exercise to make it through. It was really interesting. There were women from a lot of backgrounds and ethnicities. Most of them were over my target age group, but one expressed interest and I didn't want to turn her down just cause she was a few years older than what I was looking at. I left flyers at the Center, so perhaps more people will get in touch.

So far, I have been really satisfied with my interviews. And in between, I slog through transcribing.

Transcribing

Transcribing is really, really difficult. I knew that in theory, but after transcribing my first interview, I understand it now. My first problem was kind of silly: I'm not used to hearing my voice recorded, so at first I had a little trouble distinguishing between our voices. Usually, of course, I could tell based on what we were saying, but sometimes the interjections that weren't questions or answers, just clarifying points, were had to distinguish. I figured that out, though, and it as mostly smooth after that. There were sometimes I couldn't decipher exactly what was said, so I'll go back and listen to those parts over and over.

The main thing, though, is just how tedious and long of a process transcribing is. I don't know exactly how long it took me to transcribe the half hour interview, since I did it over the course of two days and took a lot of breaks. I do know that the transcript is an 11-page Word document, and that's after taking out all the ums and most of the likes.

I'm enjoying my project, and I'll be glad to have so much to work with, but I'm not sure I'll ever get used to transcribing. I could get software that does it, or pay someone to do it, but I think I would be so nervous that it would be wrong that I would end up listening that closely to all of it anyway.

So it goes. I've found something I dislike about doing research...but I don't think that's enough to put me off of it. So back I go, to do two more interviews today.

Community centers and an interview

I spent yesterday afternoon wandering around Brooklyn, trying to find two Muslim Community Centers I had found online. I was interested that almost every store and office in the three neighborhoods I browsed in had Arabic text in addition to English. I walked past many women wearing headscarves and all number of Islamic clothing stores and halal groceries. I never found the community centers I was looking for, though, and I wasn't really sure what other course of action to take to tap into the wealth of information that I'm sure was existing all around me. I wasn't going to stop women on the street, of course, and I feel uncomfortable leaving my flyers at a store or office. I'd rather go through organizations whose purpose it is to connect to the community and let them help me make connections. It makes it all seem more official and organized, and I'm trying to leave no room for either complaints to the IRB nor situations where I feel either unsafe or as if I've violated trust, expectations, etc. I will be content with fewer interviews that I feel I recruited in a good way than more interviews about which I feel slightly uneasy. Speaking of interviews, I had my first one yesterday evening. I spent the morning being nervous, testing my mic over and over, and prepping all my paperwork. Then I went searching for community centers, then headed to the interview. I was still really nervous, and since I for there early to be safe, I had a lot of time to let that nervous energy build up. As soon as she arrived, though, we hit the ground running. It was so easy to talk to her because I was actually interested in what she had to say, in hearing her answers and opinions and thoughts. And I mostly just asked questions, letting her say what she wanted and just listening to her. Afterwards, we walked to the subway and just chatted, and she offered to pass my flyer around and invited me to a class at her mosque where I could meet new people. It was such a great first interview and I feel great about it.

She followed up by passing my flyer along to her friends and sending me the email address of several other people I could contact, so I'm working on reaching out to them now.

More and more, I'm feeling solidified in my choice of this as a career, as a way to spend the rest of my life. I like hearing people's opinions, I like giving them a chance to talk about it, and I know that I will like writing about it. Grad school and I are going to get along well.

Scheduling interviews

Things I have learned in the last week: cold-calling/emailing women to ask for interviews is nerve-wracking and terrifying...but it does work. It helps that I've contacted relevant organizations and gotten contact information for various women from them, so that when I get in touch I can say where I've gotten their email addresses and phone numbers and it doesn't seem like I've somehow found them completely on my own. So far, everyone with whom I have gotten in touch seems interested and willing to give me some of their time, which has been wonderful. I have an actual interview scheduled for next week! I'd call it my first, but I'm actually in the process of scheduling one that will probably take place this weekend. After months of planning for this (I started trying to figure the IRB requirements in early April), it seems surreal to not only be here in New York, but to actually have interviews scheduled for concrete times. I still can't really believe that it's real and happening.

I am excited and very, very nervous to meet with these women and ask them my questions, to find out what they think about being Muslim women living in the United States. I'm hoping that after a few of these interviews, I'll have a better idea about what, exactly, I want to focus my honors thesis on. I know that once I start having interviews, my free time will suddenly have a lot more purpose as I try to stay on top of transcribing and coding the interviews so that once I start writing, all that information is easily accessible and I don't have to waste precious writing time (only 8 months!) trying to figure out my interviews.

Until the first interview, and probably after it and for the rest of the summer, I will be nervous and excited to meet these women and talk to them.

A summer in NYC

I am spending the bulk of this summer in New York City, officially getting my honors thesis project off the ground. My thesis will focus on young Muslim women living in the United States and the issues they face. I think that the unique combination of being Muslim, being a woman, and living in the United States leads to some interesting issues, whether positive or negative, and I'm looking at these women to tell me, in their own words, what they think these issues are. My plan is to set up interviews with Muslim women in their 20s and 30s to ask them directly what they think these issues are. I've tentatively narrowed my focus down to covering and veiling, but I didn't want to make a concrete decision until I hear from the women directly. I want to interview women of various ethnic and racial backgrounds, and hope to find both women who were born/grew up Muslim and women who converted at some point in their lives.

I arrived last Tuesday, June 28th, and have contacted various organizations throughout the city to try to get into contact with women of the right demographic. It's been slightly slow going in the last week, but I have quite a few contacts so far, and several women who I am in the process of setting up interviews with. My fingers are crossed that I will have at least one interview later this week, and maybe a couple next week.

Originally, I was overly ambitious and expecting 30 interviews. I am now, hopefully more realistically, looking to get 10-20 interviews, and to have (at least most of) them transcribed and organized before I head back to campus for honors college, where I will have time to do more organizing, note-taking, and writing. I plan to follow up with a few more interviews once I'm back in the Bay Area, trying to fill in the holes I feel I have in the set of interviews I get in New York.

This is all very new to me: doing research on my own, not having a set schedule, waiting (im)patiently for people to email me back so that we can set up interviews. My days remain fairly unstructured, but hopefully as people get back in touch, I will have a little more to do.